FATEHGARH SAHIB, India (AP) — Amandeep Kaur Dholewal rose from a traditional Indian cot and began speaking to a small gathering of men and women who sat cross-legged in a park opposite a white-domed gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs.
The 37-year old doctor was accompanied by twelve of her supporters. These were mostly protesters who last year stood on the edges and protested against controversial farm laws.
If elected, Dholewal told the crowd, she’d fight tirelessly for the rights of farmers.
The group of three cars moved to another village on narrow, dusty roads. They cut through thick wheat fields and mustard plants that extended into the distance. Dholewal reiterated the same message.
“We have already defeated Modi once. Let’s defeat him again.” Her voice bellowed from a loudspeaker attached to an auto rickshaw, displaying none of the flamboyance of a seasoned politician but drawing bursting applause from the audience.
The scene underscored the changing electoral landscape in India’s Punjab state, where more than 21 million voters will cast ballots on Sunday in polls that are seen as a barometer of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party’s popularity ahead of general elections in 2024. The polls will indicate whether riding the crest of the yearlong protests that forced Modi to make a rare retreat could be enough to prevent his party from making inroads in a state considered the “grain bowl” of India.
Dholewal and other political newbies are banking their hopes on this exact formula. They are vying to convert the farmers’ anger into votes, arguing that a new party is the only path to change.
“People are asking me, ‘Why are you late? We were waiting for you,’” said Dholewal, who ran a medical camp at one of the protest sites last year. Now, she is a candidate for Sanyukt Samaj Morcha (a newly formed political party that includes some farm unions who organized the protests).
“People know their rights now,“ she said.
Modi’s party implemented the controversial farm laws in September 2020 using its executive powers and without any consultation in the Parliament. His administration billed them as necessary reforms, but farmers feared the laws signaled the government was moving away from a system in which they sold their harvest only in government-sanctioned marketplaces. They were concerned that they would be left poorer and more dependent on private corporations.
The laws triggered a year of protests as angry farmers — most of them Sikhs from Punjab state — camped on the outskirts of New Delhi through a harsh winter and devastating coronavirus surge. Modi pulled the laws one year later, in November, three months before the crucial elections in Punjab and four other States. This was a significant reversal. On March 10, the election results will be published.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has a relatively small footprint in Punjab but hopes to form a government there with a regional ally and strengthen its fledgling voter base among farmers, one of the largest voting blocs in India. Punjab, where people are deeply proud of their state’s religious syncretism, also represents a test for his party’s Hindu nationalist reach, which has flourished in most of northern India since 2014.
Meanwhile, Modi’s party is running its campaign by trying to frame the incumbent Congress party government as corrupt. It also promises grandiose promises to create new jobs, provide farm subsidies, free electricity for farmers, as well as eradicate the drug plague that has plagued the state for many years.
Experts say the moves are intended to placate the angry farmers and that the elections were a major reason behind Modi’s sudden decision to withdraw the laws.
This anger is however deep.
According to Samyukt Kisan Mocha (or the United Farmers Front), more than 700 farmers were killed during protests due to extreme cold, record rainfalls, and scorching heat. This umbrella group of farm unions organized the agitation. Many others committed suicide.
But in December last year, Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar told Parliament that his government had no record of the farmers’ deaths. This caused widespread anger among the families of the deceased, many of whom are small or landless farmers who constitute the lowest rung of India’s farming community.
“Where did those 700-750 farmers go then? The Modi government is responsible for their deaths,” said Amarjeet Singh, choking back tears in his family home in Kaler Ghuman village, some 40 kilometers (24 miles) from Amritsar, the state’s capital.
Singh’s father, Sudagar Singh, died on a sweltering September afternoon from sudden cardiac arrest, according to his death certificate. Charan Singh (the village head) was his companion at the time of his death. According to his death certificate, the 72 year-old succumbed after returning from the protests.
“Even though we won in the end, those laws only brought misery to our lives. Do you think we would forget that?” said Singh, pointing to a framed portrait of his friend.
Scarred by the death, Sudagar Singh’s younger brother fell into depression, the family said. He stopped eating, and he quit working on his farm. Three months later, he also died.
In some cases, the Punjab government announced funds and jobs for the family members of the deceased. However, farmers claim that the elections provide an opportunity to transform their anger into positive change.
“That’s why you don’t see flags of any political party flying atop our homes,” said Singh, the village head. “We don’t trust them anymore.”
The Aam Aadmi Party is one of those looking to consolidate their political dominance by the election. It was founded in 2013 to eradicate corruption and has ruled Delhi for two terms.
Its campaign plan in Punjab, however, is not limited to just the farmers’ anger. The party wants to ride on the reemerged faultlines that were blurred during demonstrations.
At its peak, the protest drew support from Punjab’s rural and urban populations. Now, those protests find very little resonance among city voters who say the farmers’ issues should take a backseat since the laws have been withdrawn.
“The youth want education, health, employment and an end to corruption. That’s what people want. They want a change,” said Avinash Jolly, a businessman.
This sentiment is what the Aam Aadmi Party hopes will be repaid.
On a recent afternoon, Harbhajan Singh, one of the party’s candidates from the Jandiala constituency, rode atop a car during door-to-door campaigning. A band of young men followed him on motorbikes waving flags brandishing the party symbol — a broom to sweep out corruption.
Singh stopped by a park to talk with his supporters about how he could chip away at the entrenched system of political power.
To resounding applause, he ended his speech with a call to the people in the crowd: “Will you teach a lesson to those leaders who have ruined this sacred land and humiliated our farmers?”